Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Nutjobs And Time Horizons

Matt Yglesias linked to this piece in N+1 and FLG doesn't think he could find a more concise example of all the things he has been writing here at liberals even if he wrote it himself. It's got the short time horizons. It even has evidence for FLG's claim that the goal of Marxism is a bastardized form of Aristotelian Leisure that "means the ability to pursue one's goals free from constraints. Those constraints could be cultural, economic, or political."

Let's take each in turn. Short time horizons first.
§ Principle: The purpose of government is to share out money so that there are no poor citizens—therefore no one for whom we must feel guilty because of the arbitrariness of fate. The purpose of life is to free individuals for individualism. Individualism is the project of making your own life as appealing as you can, as remarkable as you like, without the encumbrances of an unequal society, which renders your successes undeserved. Government is the outside corrective that leaves us free for life.

§ Legislative Initiative No.1: Add a tax bracket of 100 percent to cut off individual income at a fixed ceiling, allowing any individual to bring home a maximum of $100,000 a year from all sources and no more.

§ Legislative Initiative No.2: Give every citizen a total of $10,000 a year from the government revenues, paid as a monthly award, in recognition of being an adult in the United States.

Again, sharing income is a short-term thing. It creates disincentives to work over the long-term. The author anticipates this.

It is an active redistribution to help dissolve the two portions of society whose existence is antithetical to democracy and civilization, and which harm the members of each of these classes: the obscenely poor and the absurdly rich. Each group must be helped. That means not only ending poverty, but ending absurd wealth. Obscene poverty doesn’t motivate the poor or please the rest of us; it makes the poor desperate, criminal, and unhappy. Absurd wealth doesn’t help the rich or motivate the rest of us, it makes the rich (for the most part good, decent, hardworking and talented people) into selfish guilty parties, responsible for social evil. It is cruel to rig our system to create these extremes, and cast fellow citizens into the two sewers that border the national road. For all of us, both superwealth and superpoverty make achievement trivial and unreal, and finally destroy the American principles of hard work and just deserts. Luckily, eradicating one (individual superwealth) might help eradicate the other (superpoverty).

Now, there are a few problems here. As Matt points out, the author kinda assumes a paycheck mentality. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, would be seriously discouraged. And most of the super-wealthy founded their own businesses. If you could only make $100k a year, then people wouldn't start and expand businesses. Nor would people probably want to work very hard for them.

Also, I'm not sure how it holds that a system where pretty much whatever you do you still get as much money as everybody else helps foster hard work and just deserts. Seems that it does precisely the opposite.

The threat from those who oppose this line of thought is that, without “incentives,” people will stop working. The worst-case scenario is that tens of thousands of people who hold jobs in finance, corporate management, and the professions (not to mention professional sports and acting) will quit their jobs and end their careers because they did not truly want to be bankers, lawyers, CEOs, actors, ballplayers, et cetera.


If there is anyone working a job who would stop doing that job should his income—and all his richest compatriots’ incomes—drop to $100,000 a year, he should not be doing that job. He should never have been doing that job—for his own life’s sake. It’s just not a life, to do work you don’t want to do when you have other choices, and can think of something better (and have a $10,000 cushion to supplement a different choice of life)

What's interesting, getting back to the Aristotelian thing, is that the author tries to defend this limit using Locke:
True property is that which is proper to you: what you mix your hands into (Locke), what is characteristic of you and no one else, and would change state in anyone else’s possession. It is your clothes, your domicile, the things you touch and use, the land you personally walk.


A rich person—continuing to draw $100,000 a year in income—stays rich, but puts part of it into his own home and bank account and part into the needs and luxuries he may actually use. This sum will be converted reasonably into the proper, the personal, without any absurdity. A superrich person, however, who takes in $1 million, $10 million, or $100 million, will not and can never spend it on any sane vision of the necessities of life, at least not without a parasitic order in which normal goods (a home, a dinner) are overpriced (by the existence of those who will compete to pay for them) and other goods are made to be abnormal and bloated (like the multiacre mansion).

Personally, as I've stated above, I think this really is more an Aristolean thing. But I'll leave the philosophical issues aside.

There are a gazillion problems here. To the point where this isn't even a fruitful intellectual exercise. I mean, it's simply fucktarded.

The author half-heartedly tries to argue the world wouldn't end:
The supposed collapse of the economy without unlimited income levels is one of the most suspicious aspects of commonplace economic psychology. Ask yourself, for once, if you believe it. Does the inventor just not bother to invent any more if inventions still benefit larger collectivities—a company, a society—but do not lead to a jump in his or any other inventor’s already satisfactory personal income? Do the professions really collapse if doctors and lawyers work for life and justice and $100,000, rather than $1 million? Will the arts and entertainment collapse if the actors, writers, and producers work for glory and $100,000? Do ballplayers go into some other line and stop playing? If you’re panicking because you can’t imagine a ceiling of $100,000, well, make it $150,000. Our whole system is predicated on the erroneous idea that individuals are likely to hate the work they have chosen, but overwhelmingly love money.

I've posted a lot here, but the fundamental problem is this -- The author wants a world where we are free of financial and economic constraints. A world in which each citizen is unencumbered by economic necessity and can flourish according to their own desires. However, an irreducible fact is that there are limited resources and finite wants. It would be great if we could all simply spend our lives doing what we want in perfect leisure, but there is shit that just needs to get done that people don't want to do. Sure, some people will want to spend years studying hard to become a doctor and help people because they like helping people, but there wouldn't be enough of them when they only can make $100k and everybody is paid $10k no matter what. Likewise, there may be people who like being farmers, but they probably wouldn't be able to grow enough food. Or rather they wouldn't bother growing more than $100k worth. You get the idea. There'd be lots of artists, but not enough food, electricity, or whatever else.

Update: I wanted to point this out, but look at the two modes of analysis. He's asking whether a $100k limit will make existing lawyers, doctors, and ballplayers close up shop and do something else. I'm worried not only about current, but more importantly the future supply of doctors.

And, in the final analysis, the author concedes:
intentional de-development might be the best thing that can occur. The eradication of diseases is not something you would like to see end; nor would you want to lose the food supply, transportation, and good order of the law and defense. On the other hand, more cell phones and wireless, an expanded total entertainment environment, more computerization for consumer tracking, greater concentrations of capital and better exploitation of “inefficiencies” in the trading of securities, the final throes of extraction and gas-guzzling and—to hell with it. I’d rather live in a more equal world at a slower pace.

Right, so basically he's saying reverting back to a subsistence economic system, where everybody is pretty much equally miserable, is preferable. (Really, that's not the real choice. I think he's talking about forgoing future economic growth in exchange for more equality, i.e. following my theory that liberals value the present more than the future. In any case...)

I seriously try to understand other points of view. I've spent a good portion of my posts on this blog trying to understand liberal and progressive positions in an evenhanded and non-judgemental way with varying degrees of success. The differing values placed on future economic growth versus present suffering. Choices versus fate. Etc. But then you get a completely fucked idea that other liberals and progressives think is at all useful, even as a thought experiment, and I begin to question their judgment and even sanity.


The Ancient said...

I haven't read anything as luminously stupid as that article in many, many years. This guy was a Marshall scholar? He went to Harvard, Oxford, and Yale? (That mandatory curriculum of yours needs more economics and math -- even if the latter comes in the form of statistics.)

The World According to Greif:


P.S. Clearly he never got to that famous footnote in the unpublished fourth volume of Kapital where Marx writes, "Fuck, man. Work's a drag!"

FLG said...

Well, he is a professor at The New School. You've got to be to the left of Clement Attlee just to walk in the door there. If you want to fit in, well, Mao had better by to your right.

Not quite sure why I pulled those two names, but they seem to fit.

The Ancient said...

I was very fond of the late David Gordon, who also taught there. David was the only person I knew back in the seventies who could use French Marxist theory in the course of a joke about Louis Althusser's murder of his wife.

(You had to be there, I suppose.)

Flavia said...

Per The Ancient: Greif's Ph.D. is in American Studies/English. That certainly doesn't disqualify someone from talking about economics. . . but it's not exactly a recommendation.

I know Greif very slightly, but well enough that every time I think of him I roll my eyes and mutter something under my breath.

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